By Robin Jane Roff
5 August 2021 – Star Lake
A small lake, 3 miles above Gold River, surrounded by second growth, banks dripping with salal. An angler sits on the ramshackle dock letting his rod sway with the waves — catching something is unimportant. Two loons swim languidly, diving for the fish the man cannot attract. After a while, the birds let out a throaty call as a bald eagle sweeps down for a lunchtime meal. Splash. Dive. Missed. The eagle flies off. What a place to spend a wet and windy afternoon.
Three months before I wrote those words, I was weeping into the detritus of the forest floor. The smell of dank earth mixed with my sobs, making me gag and sputter into the dirt.
“So, this is what it feels like to hit rock bottom,” I mused as I let the wetness seep beneath my clothes, “I thought I’d bounce.”
I had fallen, both physically and psychologically, into a big pile of mud. Something needed to change — the trails that had brought me solace over the last year of isolation and pandemic-induced fear were no longer enough to keep me going. I turned to friends, family and professionals for ways to pick myself up. A number of people suggested I try keeping a nature journal — to attune to my emotional state and to keep track of my adventures. While I first scoffed at the idea, something lingered and, a few weeks later, I was sitting once again in the woodland detritus, but this time with pen and paper. My first description of mud, dirt, rocks and thickly scabbed tree bark was cathartic and I haven’t looked back since.
Put simply, nature journaling is the practice of writing in response to wild (and not so wild) spaces. Research has shown that it, like other forms of mindfulness, can reduce stress, increase cognition and boost immune system functioning — all things that seem useful in our pandemic times. It has certainly helped me weather this storm and I believe that it offers something small but tangible to all of us. Below I share some thoughts on how to pick up your own pen and sit in the dirt for a few minutes.
Nature journaling has a long and storied legacy. Today, some of those manuscripts are foundational pieces in modern environmentalism. My journals will not shatter anyone’s mind, nor do they have to. Nature journals are personal and should capture what you want and need to express — they are a record of experiences on the trail or in your backyard. They can be as simple as a single line or as long as a short story. Thoughts, emotions and narrative can drift aimlessly over the pages, or they can swirl into a sketch or image. There can be characters and plot, or only vague references to time and place. The first rule of journaling is that there are no rules.
From that first entry — a simple sketch of a trail in my local park — journaling has changed my experience of nature. I slowed down and became mindful of the wilderness around me (even in the city). I rediscovered the childhood joy of seeing a banana slug’s silvery path or feeling the charged air after a lightning strike. Writing in nature sparks my creativity and challenges my assumptions about why I hike. It forces me to re-learn the names of plants, animals and fungi — to really study the map. While I have no barometer for stress, I do think it has made me happier. And all for the small cost of a little ink, some paper and the time and patience to pay attention. A bargain in my mind.
I came to nature writing at the suggestion of good friends when I needed help. It was a gift. I encourage anyone who is looking for a way to reinvigorate their experience of nature, to relieve stress or simply to deepen their knowledge of the outside world to give nature journaling a whirl.
10 Tips to Start Nature Journaling
After a year of writing, here are some ideas that I hope will help you start your own journaling habit:
Find a medium that works for you. I’ve used everything from the back of receipts, to formal journals, to my phone’s note function.
Think outside the pen. A drawing, voice memo or video can be a wonderful way to capture the moment.
Take chances. Being good — drawing the perfect owl or finding the perfect prose — is not the point. Be true to what is meaningful to you. Stick figures are encouraged!
There is no right time, only a “write time.” Write whenever it suits you — even if you stop mid-trail.
Take lots of pictures. They can help you describe a scene later.
Take note of the details, big and small. Try to describe what you are seeing, smelling, hearing or even tasting (e.g. the scent of cedar in the air or the energy bar stuck to your back tooth).
Experiment with form. One adventure might call out to be documented in full dramatic narrative. Another might be better remembered through a few short lines. And don’t forget poetry.
Listen to people. Record conversations and snippets of speech as quickly as possible. (The note function on phones is good here.) It is amazing how much life these pieces bring to a memory.
Consult maps, guidebooks and field guides to help you describe what you see and experience.
Be brave and have fun!
Robin Jane Roff is an avid backpacker, trail runner and backcountry skier. When she isn’t in the mountains, you can find her crafting stories as a freelance adventure writer or daydreaming of once again crossing the border to Washington from her home in Vancouver, Canada.